Daniel Diez Couch, “Setting Fires with Hawthorne: ‘Earth’s Holocaust’ and Book Burning in Nineteenth-Century America” (pp. 87–113)
Nathaniel Hawthorne burned pages and pages of his own writing over the course of his life and investigated the topic in two tales, “The Devil in Manuscript” (1835) and “Earth’s Holocaust” (1844). While the former borrows from his own life experiences, the latter presents a cataclysmic vision of the destruction of all literature. Yet Hawthorne does not offer a typical lament—based in liberal ideologies of the progress of knowledge and the sanctity of the written word—for the all-consuming holocaust. Rather, he argues that the pyre yields a transformative and unexpected effect on the aesthetic and temporal qualities of the texts. Drawing on contemporary accounts of book burnings, Hawthorne generates a productive vision of the act by which the fire transforms texts into a visible spectacle of beauty. “Earth’s Holocaust” thus offers an aesthetic avenue for understanding literary bonfires. Moreover, Hawthorne rejects the premise that such events end the temporal lifecycle of texts. Throughout the tale, he contends that even though book burnings will occur time and again regardless of human reformation, books can surpass the effects of the flames even if such a process only occurs imaginatively. In the dematerialization of books—in turning them from a complete, bounded whole into embers and particles of dust—Hawthorne finds a redemptive energy.